Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry: Our leaders thoug

Hard to overstate the significance of this topic. Unfortunately, the material in here will become more and more depressing as time goes on. Not much hope of any alternative to that.

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry: Our leaders thoug

Postby admin » Sat Mar 26, 2016 3:39 am

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry: Our leaders thought fracking would save our climate. They were wrong. Very wrong.
By Bill McKibben
MARCH 23, 2016

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A fracking well in the Eagle Ford Shale region, near Karnes City, Texas. (AP Photo / Aaron M. Sprecher)

Global warming is, in the end, not about the noisy political battles here on the planet’s surface. It actually happens in constant, silent interactions in the atmosphere, where the molecular structure of certain gases traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. If you get the chemistry wrong, it doesn’t matter how many landmark climate agreements you sign or how many speeches you give. And it appears the United States may have gotten the chemistry wrong. Really wrong.

There’s one greenhouse gas everyone knows about: carbon dioxide, which is what you get when you burn fossil fuels. We talk about a “price on carbon” or argue about a carbon tax; our leaders boast about modest “carbon reductions.” But in the last few weeks, CO2’s nasty little brother has gotten some serious press. Meet methane, otherwise known as CH4.

In February, Harvard researchers published an explosive paper in Geophysical Research Letters. Using satellite data and ground observations, they concluded that the nation as a whole is leaking methane in massive quantities. Between 2002 and 2014, the data showed that US methane emissions increased by more than 30 percent, accounting for 30 to 60 percent of an enormous spike in methane in the entire planet’s atmosphere.

To the extent our leaders have cared about climate change, they’ve fixed on CO2. Partly as a result, coal-fired power plants have begun to close across the country. They’ve been replaced mostly with ones that burn natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane. Because burning natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide than burning coal, CO2 emissions have begun to trend slowly downward, allowing politicians to take a bow. But this new Harvard data, which comes on the heels of other aerial surveys showing big methane leakage, suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities. And molecule for molecule, this unburned methane is much, much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

The EPA insisted this wasn’t happening, that methane was on the decline just like CO2. But it turns out, as some scientists have been insisting for years, the EPA was wrong. Really wrong. This error is the rough equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange announcing tomorrow that the Dow Jones isn’t really at 17,000: Its computer program has been making a mistake, and your index fund actually stands at 11,000.

These leaks are big enough to wipe out a large share of the gains from the Obama administration’s work on climate change—all those closed coal mines and fuel-efficient cars. In fact, it’s even possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years. The methane story is utterly at odds with what we’ve been telling ourselves, not to mention what we’ve been telling the rest of the planet. It undercuts the promises we made at the climate talks in Paris. It’s a disaster—and one that seems set to spread.

The Obama administration, to its credit, seems to be waking up to the problem. Over the winter, the EPA began to revise its methane calculations, and in early March, the United States reached an agreement with Canada to begin the arduous task of stanching some of the leaks from all that new gas infrastructure. But none of this gets to the core problem, which is the rapid spread of fracking. Carbon dioxide is driving the great warming of the planet, but CO2 isn’t doing it alone. It’s time to take methane seriously.

***

To understand how we got here, it’s necessary to remember what a savior fracked natural gas looked like to many people, environmentalists included. As George W. Bush took hold of power in Washington, coal was ascendant, here and around the globe. Cheap and plentiful, it was most visibly underwriting the stunning growth of the economy in China, where, by some estimates, a new coal-fired power plant was opening every week. The coal boom didn’t just mean smoggy skies over Beijing; it meant the planet’s invisible cloud of carbon dioxide was growing faster than ever, and with it the certainty of dramatic global warming.

So lots of people thought it was great news when natural-gas wildcatters began rapidly expanding fracking in the last decade. Fracking involves exploding the sub-surface geology so that gas can leak out through newly opened pores; its refinement brought online new shale deposits across the continent—most notably the Marcellus Shale, stretching from West Virginia up into Pennsylvania and New York. The quantities of gas that geologists said might be available were so vast that they were measured in trillions of cubic feet and in centuries of supply.

The apparently happy fact was that when you burn natural gas, it releases half as much carbon dioxide as coal. A power plant that burned natural gas would therefore, or so the reasoning went, be half as bad for global warming as a power plant that burned coal. Natural gas was also cheap—so, from a politician’s point of view, fracking was a win-win situation. You could appease the environmentalists with their incessant yammering about climate change without having to run up the cost of electricity. It would be painless environmentalism, the equivalent of losing weight by cutting your hair.

It’s possible that America’s contribution to global warming increased during the Obama years.


And it appeared even better than that. If you were President Obama and had inherited a dead-in-the-water economy, the fracking boom offered one of the few economic bright spots. Not only did it employ lots of people, but cheap natural gas had also begun to alter the country’s economic equation: Manufacturing jobs were actually returning from overseas, attracted by newly abundant energy. In his 2012 State of the Union address, Obama declared that new natural-gas supplies would not only last the nation a century, but would create 600,000 new jobs by decade’s end. In his 2014 address, he announced that “businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in factories that use natural gas,” and pledged to “cut red tape” to get it all done. In fact, the natural-gas revolution has been a constant theme of his energy policy, the tool that made his restrictions on coal palatable. And Obama was never shy about taking credit for at least part of the boom. Public research dollars, he said in 2012, “helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock—reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

Obama had plenty of help selling natural gas—from the fossil-fuel industry, but also from environmentalists, at least for a while. Robert Kennedy Jr., who had enormous credibility as the founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance and a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote a paean in 2009 to the “revolution…over the past two years [that] has left America awash in natural gas and has made it possible to eliminate most of our dependence on deadly, destructive coal practically overnight.” Meanwhile, the longtime executive director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, had not only taken $25 million from one of the nation’s biggest frackers, Chesapeake Energy, to fund his organization, but was also making appearances with the company’s CEO to tout the advantages of gas, “an excellent example of a fuel that can be produced in quite a clean way, and shouldn’t be wasted.” (That CEO, Aubrey McClendon, apparently killed himself earlier this month, crashing his car into a bridge embankment days after being indicted for bid-rigging.) Exxon was in apparent agreement as well: It purchased XTO Energy, becoming the biggest fracker in the world overnight and allowing the company to make the claim that it was helping to drive emissions down.

For a brief shining moment, you couldn’t have asked for more. As Obama told a joint session of Congress, “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.”

* * *

Unless, of course, you happened to live in the fracking zone, where nightmares were starting to unfold. In recent decades, most American oil and gas exploration had been concentrated in the western United States, often far from population centers. When there were problems, politicians and media in these states paid little attention.

The Marcellus Shale, though, underlies densely populated eastern states. It wasn’t long before stories about the pollution of farm fields and contamination of drinking water from fracking chemicals began to make their way into the national media. In the Delaware Valley, after a fracking company tried to lease his family’s farm, a young filmmaker named Josh Fox produced one of the classic environmental documentaries of all time, Gasland, which became instantly famous for its shot of a man lighting on fire the methane flowing from his water faucet.

This reporting helped galvanize a movement—at first town by town, then state by state, and soon across whole regions. The activism was most feverish in New York, where residents could look across the Pennsylvania line and see the ecological havoc that fracking caused. Scores of groups kept up unrelenting pressure that eventually convinced Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban it. Long before that happened, the big environmental groups recanted much of their own support for fracking: The Sierra Club’s new executive director, Michael Brune, not only turned down $30 million in potential donations from fracking companies but came out swinging against the practice. “The club needs to…advocate more fiercely to use as little gas as possible,” he said. “We’re not going to mute our voice on this.” As for Robert Kennnedy Jr., by 2013 he was calling natural gas a “catastrophe.”


In the end, one of the most important outcomes of the antifracking movement may have been that it attracted the attention of a couple of Cornell scientists. Living on the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea got interested in the outcry. While everyone else was focused on essentially local issues—would fracking chemicals get in the water supply?—they decided to look more closely at a question that had never gotten much attention: How much methane was invisibly being leaked by these fracking operations?

Natural gas was also cheap—so, from a politician’s point of view, fracking was a win-win situation.


Because here’s the unhappy fact about methane: Though it produces only half as much carbon as coal when you burn it, if you don’t—if it escapes into the air before it can be captured in a pipeline, or anywhere else along its route to a power plant or your stove—then it traps heat in the atmosphere much more efficiently than CO2. Howarth and Ingraffea began producing a series of papers claiming that if even a small percentage of the methane leaked—maybe as little as 3 percent—then fracked gas would do more climate damage than coal. And their preliminary data showed that leak rates could be at least that high: that somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of methane gas from shale-drilling operations actually escapes into the atmosphere.

To say that no one in power wanted to hear this would be an understatement. The two scientists were roundly attacked by the industry; one trade group called their study the “Ivory Tower’s latest fact-free assault on shale gas exploration.” Most of the energy establishment joined in. An MIT team, for instance, had just finished an industry-funded report that found “the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable”; one of its lead authors, the ur-establishment energy expert Henry Jacoby, described the Cornell research as “very weak.” One of its other authors, Ernest Moniz, would soon become the US secretary of energy; in his nomination hearings in 2013, he lauded the “stunning increase” in natural gas as a “revolution” and pledged to increase its use domestically.

The trouble for the fracking establishment was that new research kept backing up Howarth and Ingraffea. In January 2013, for instance, aerial overflights of fracking basins in Utah found leak rates as high as 9 percent.
“We were expecting to see high methane levels, but I don’t think anybody really comprehended the true magnitude of what we would see,” said the study’s director. But such work was always piecemeal, one area at a time, while other studies—often conducted with industry-supplied data—came up with lower numbers.

* * *

That’s why last month’s Harvard study came as such a shock. It used satellite data from across the country over a span of more than a decade to demonstrate that US methane emissions had spiked 30 percent since 2002. The EPA had been insisting throughout that period that methane emissions were actually falling, but it was clearly wrong—on a massive scale. In fact, emissions “are substantially higher than we’ve understood,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy admitted in early March. The Harvard study wasn’t designed to show why US methane emissions were growing—in other parts of the world, as new research makes clear, cattle and wetlands seem to be causing emissions to accelerate. But the spike that the satellites recorded coincided almost perfectly with the era when fracking went big-time.

To make matters worse, during the same decade, experts had become steadily more worried about the effects of methane in any quantity on the atmosphere. Everyone agrees that, molecule for molecule, methane traps far more heat than CO2—but exactly how much wasn’t clear. One reason the EPA estimates of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions showed such improvement was because the agency, following standard procedures, was assigning a low value to methane and measuring its impact over a 100-year period. But a methane molecule lasts only a couple of decades in the air, compared with centuries for CO2. That’s good news, in that methane’s effects are transient—and very bad news because that transient but intense effect happens right now, when we’re breaking the back of the planet’s climate.[/size][/b] The EPA’s old chemistry and 100-year time frame assigned methane a heating value of 28 to 36 times that of carbon dioxide; a more accurate figure, says Howarth, is between 86 and 105 times the potency of CO2 over the next decade or two.

If you combine Howarth’s estimates of leakage rates and the new standard values for the heat-trapping potential of methane, then the picture of America’s total greenhouse-gas emissions over the last 15 years looks very different: [b][size=150]Instead of peaking in 2007 and then trending downward, as the EPA has maintained, our combined emissions of methane and carbon dioxide have gone steadily and sharply up during the Obama years, Howarth says. We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse.


Since Howarth is an outspoken opponent of fracking, I ran the Harvard data past an impeccably moderate referee, the venerable climate-policy wonk Dan Lashof. A UC Berkeley PhD who has been in the inner circles of climate policy almost since it began, Lashof has helped write reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and craft the Obama administration’s plan to cut coal-plant pollution. The longtime head of the Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, he is now the chief operations officer of billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate America.

We closed coal plants and opened methane leaks, and the result is that things have gotten worse.


“The Harvard paper is important,” Lashof said. “It’s the most convincing new data I have seen showing that the EPA’s estimates of the methane-leak rate are much too low. I think this paper shows that US greenhouse-gas emissions may have gone up over the last decade if you focus on the combined short-term-warming impact.”

Under the worst-case scenario—one that assumes that methane is extremely potent and extremely fast-acting—the United States has actually slightly increased its greenhouse-gas emissions from 2005 to 2015. That’s the chart below: the blue line shows what we’ve been telling ourselves and the world about our emissions—that they are falling. The red line, the worst-case calculation from the new numbers, shows just the opposite.

Lashof argues for a more moderate reading of the numbers (calculating methane’s impact over 50 years, for instance). But even this estimate—one that attributes less of the methane release to fracking—wipes out as much as three-fifths of the greenhouse-gas reductions that the United States has been claiming. This more modest reassessment is the yellow line in the chart below; it shows the country reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions, but by nowhere near as much as we had thought.

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The lines are doubtless not as smooth as the charts imply, and other studies will provide more detail and perhaps shift the calculations. But any reading of the new data offers a very different version of our recent history. Among other things, either case undercuts the statistics that America used to negotiate the Paris climate accord. It’s more upsetting than the discovery last year that China had underestimated its coal use, because China now appears to be cutting back aggressively on coal. If the Harvard data hold up and we keep on fracking, it will be nearly impossible for the United States to meet its promised goal of a 26 to 28 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2025.

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* * *

One obvious conclusion from the new data is that we need to move very aggressively to plug as many methane leaks as possible. “The biggest unfinished business for the Obama administration is to establish tight rules on methane emissions from existing [wells and drill sites],” Lashof says. That’s the work that Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to tackle at their conclave in March—although given the time it takes for the EPA to draft new rules, it will likely be long after Obama’s departure before anything happens, and the fossil-fuel industry has vowed to fight new regulations.

Also, containing the leaks is easier said than done: After all, methane is a gas, meaning that it’s hard to prevent it from escaping. Since methane is invisible and odorless (utilities inject a separate chemical to add a distinctive smell), you need special sensors to even measure leaks. Catastrophic blowouts like the recent one at Porter Ranch in California pour a lot of methane into the air, but even these accidents are small compared to the total seeping out from the millions of pipes, welds, joints, and valves across the country—especially the ones connected with fracking operations, which involve exploding rock to make large, leaky pores. A Canadian government team examined the whole process a couple of years ago and came up with despairing conclusions. Consider the cement seals around drill pipes, says Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes, who was a member of the team: “It sounds like it ought to be simple to make a cement seal, but the phrase we finally fixed on is ‘an unresolved engineering challenge.’ The technical problem is that when you pour cement into a well and it solidifies, it shrinks. You can get gaps in the cement. All wells leak.”

With that in mind, the other conclusion from the new data is even more obvious: We need to stop the fracking industry in its tracks, here and abroad. Even with optimistic numbers for all the plausible leaks fixed, Howarth says, methane emissions will keep rising if we keep fracking.

“It ought to be simple to make a cement seal, but the phrase we finally fixed on is ‘an unresolved engineering challenge.’” —Naomi Oreskes


And if we didn’t frack, what would we do instead? Ten years ago, the realistic choice was between natural gas and coal. But that choice is no longer germane: Over the same 10 years, the price of a solar panel has dropped at least 80 percent. New inventions have come online, such as air-source heat pumps, which use the latent heat in the air to warm and cool houses, and electric storage batteries. We’ve reached the point where Denmark can generate 42 percent of its power from the wind, and where Bangladesh is planning to solarize every village in the country within the next five years. We’ve reached the point, that is, where the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable future is a marketing slogan, not a realistic claim (even if that’s precisely the phrase that Hillary Clinton used to defend fracking in a debate earlier this month).

One of the nastiest side effects of the fracking boom, in fact, is that the expansion of natural gas has undercut the market for renewables, keeping us from putting up windmills and solar panels at the necessary pace. Joe Romm, a climate analyst at the Center for American Progress, has been tracking the various economic studies more closely than anyone else. Even if you could cut the methane-leakage rates to zero, Romm says, fracked gas (which, remember, still produces 50 percent of the CO2 level emitted by coal when you burn it) would do little to cut the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions because it would displace so much truly clean power. A Stanford forum in 2014 assembled more than a dozen expert teams, and their models showed what a drag on a sustainable future cheap, abundant gas would be. “Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies,” the principal investigator of the Stanford forum explained. “If you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether.”

Of course, if you’re a cookie company, that’s not what you want to hear. And the Exxons have a little more political juice than the Keeblers. To give just one tiny example, during his first term, Obama’s then–deputy assistant for energy and climate change, Heather Zichal, headed up an interagency working group to promote the development of domestic natural gas. The working group had been formed after pressure from the American Petroleum Institute, the chief fossil-fuel lobbying group, and Zichal, in a talk to an API gathering, said: “It’s hard to overstate how natural gas—and our ability to access more of it than ever—has become a game changer, and that’s why it’s been a fixture of the president’s ‘All of the Above’ energy strategy.” Zichal left her White House job in 2013; one year later, she took a new post on the board of Cheniere Energy, a leading exporter of fracked gas. In the $180,000-a-year job, she joined former CIA head John Deutch, who once led an Energy Department review of fracking safety during the Obama years, and Vicky Bailey, a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission under Bill Clinton. That’s how it works.

* * *

There was one oddly reassuring number in the Harvard satellite data: The massive new surge of methane from the United States constituted somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the global growth in methane emissions this past decade. In other words, the relatively small percentage of the planet’s surface known as the United States accounts for much (if not most) of the spike in atmospheric methane around the world. Another way of saying this is: We were the first to figure out how to frack. In this new century, we’re leading the world into the natural-gas age, just as we poured far more carbon into the 20th-century atmosphere than any other nation. So, thank God, now that we know there’s a problem, we could warn the rest of the planet before it goes down the same path.

Except we’ve been doing exactly the opposite. We’ve become the planet’s salesman for natural gas—and a key player in this scheme could become the next president of the United States. When Hillary Clinton took over the State Department, she set up a special arm, the Bureau of Energy Resources, after close consultation with oil and gas executives. This bureau, with 63 employees, was soon helping sponsor conferences around the world. And much more: Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show that the secretary of state was essentially acting as a broker for the shale-gas industry, twisting the arms of world leaders to make sure US firms got to frack at will.

To take just one example, an article in Mother Jones based on the WikiLeaks cables reveals what happened when fracking came to Bulgaria. In 2011, the country signed a $68 million deal with Chevron, granting the company millions of acres in shale-gas concessions. The Bulgarian public wasn’t happy: Tens of thousands were in the streets of Sofia with banners reading Stop Fracking With Our Water. But when Clinton came for a state visit in 2012, she sided with Chevron (one of whose executives had bundled large sums for her presidential campaign in 2008). In fact, the leaked cables show that the main topic of her meetings with Bulgaria’s leaders was fracking. Clinton offered to fly in the “best specialists on these new technologies to present the benefits to the Bulgarian people,” and she dispatched her Eurasian energy envoy, Richard Morningstar, to lobby hard against a fracking ban in neighboring Romania. Eventually, they won those battles—and today, the State Department provides “assistance” with fracking to dozens of countries around the world, from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea.

So if the United States has had a terrible time tracking down and fixing its methane leaks, ask yourself how it’s going to go in Bulgaria. If Canada finds that sealing leaks is an “unresolved engineering challenge,” ask yourself how Cambodia’s going to make out. If the State Department has its way, then in a few years Harvard’s satellites will be measuring gushers of methane from every direction.

* * *

Of course, we can—and perhaps we should— forgive all that past. The information about methane is relatively new; when Obama and Clinton and Zichal started backing fracking, they didn’t really know. They could have turned around much earlier, like Kennedy or the Sierra Club. But what they do now will be decisive.

There are a few promising signs. Clinton has at least tempered her enthusiasm for fracking some in recent debates, listing a series of preconditions she’d insist on before new projects were approved; Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has called for a moratorium on new fracking. But Clinton continues to conflate and confuse the chemistry: Natural gas, she said in a recent position paper, has helped US carbon emissions “reach their lowest level in 20 years.” It appears that many in power would like to carry on the fracking revolution, albeit a tad more carefully.

Indeed, just last month, Cheniere Energy shipped the first load of American gas overseas from its new export terminal at Sabine Pass in Louisiana. As the ship sailed, Cheniere’s vice president of marketing, Meg Gentle, told industry and government officials that natural gas should be rebranded as renewable energy. “I’d challenge everyone here to reframe the debate and make sure natural gas is part of the category of clean energy, not a fossil-fuel category, which is viewed as dirty and not part of the solution,” she said. A few days later, Exxon’s PR chief, writing in the Los Angeles Times, boasted that the company had been “instrumental in America’s shale gas revolution,” and that as a result, “America’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined to levels not seen since the 1990s.”

The new data prove them entirely wrong. The global-warming fight can’t just be about carbon dioxide any longer. Those local environmentalists, from New York State to Tasmania, who have managed to enforce fracking bans are doing as much for the climate as they are for their own clean water. That’s because fossil fuels are the problem in global warming—and fossil fuels don’t come in good and bad flavors. Coal and oil and natural gas have to be left in the ground. All of them.

BILL MCKIBBEN Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection. A scholar in residence at Middlebury College, he is co-founder of 350.org, the largest global grassroots organizing campaign on climate change.
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Re: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry: Our leaders t

Postby admin » Sat Mar 26, 2016 5:12 am

How Hillary Clinton's State Department Sold Fracking to the World: A trove of secret documents details the US government's global push for shale gas.
by Mariah Blake
September/October 2014 Issue

NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT

YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.


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Illustration by John Ritter

ONE ICY MORNING in February 2012, Hillary Clinton's plane touched down in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, which was just digging out from a fierce blizzard. Wrapped in a thick coat, the secretary of state descended the stairs to the snow-covered tarmac, where she and her aides piled into a motorcade bound for the presidential palace. That afternoon, they huddled with Bulgarian leaders, including Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, discussing everything from Syria's bloody civil war to their joint search for loose nukes. But the focus of the talks was fracking. The previous year, Bulgaria had signed a five-year, $68 million deal, granting US oil giant Chevron millions of acres in shale gas concessions. Bulgarians were outraged. Shortly before Clinton arrived, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets carrying placards that read "Stop fracking with our water" and "Chevron go home." Bulgaria's parliament responded by voting overwhelmingly for a fracking moratorium.

Clinton urged Bulgarian officials to give fracking another chance. According to Borissov, she agreed to help fly in the "best specialists on these new technologies to present the benefits to the Bulgarian people." But resistance only grew. The following month in neighboring Romania, thousands of people gathered to protest another Chevron fracking project, and Romania's parliament began weighing its own shale gas moratorium. Again Clinton intervened, dispatching her special envoy for energy in Eurasia, Richard Morningstar, to push back against the fracking bans. The State Depart­ment's lobbying effort culminated in late May 2012, when Morningstar held a series of meetings on fracking with top Bulgarian and Romanian officials. He also touted the technology in an interview on Bulgarian national radio, saying it could lead to a fivefold drop in the price of natural gas. A few weeks later, Romania's parliament voted down its proposed fracking ban and Bulgaria's eased its moratorium.

The episode sheds light on a crucial but little-known dimension of Clinton's diplomatic legacy. Under her leadership, the State Department worked closely with energy companies to spread fracking around the globe—part of a broader push to fight climate change, boost global energy supply, and undercut the power of adversaries such as Russia that use their energy resources as a cudgel. But environmental groups fear that exporting fracking, which has been linked to drinking-water contamination and earthquakes at home, could wreak havoc in countries with scant environmental regulation. And according to interviews, diplomatic cables, and other documents obtained by Mother Jones, American officials—some with deep ties to industry—also helped US firms clinch potentially lucrative shale concessions overseas, raising troubling questions about whose interests the program actually serves.

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Hillary Clinton is welcomed to Sofia by Bulgarian Foreign Affairs Minister Nikolay Mladenov, left. US Department of State/flickr

GEOLOGISTS HAVE LONG KNOWN that there were huge quantities of natural gas locked in shale rock. But tapping it wasn't economically viable until the late 1990s, when a Texas wildcatter named George Mitchell hit on a novel extraction method that involved drilling wells sideways from the initial borehole, then blasting them full of water, chemicals, and sand to break up the shale—a variation of a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Besides dislodging a bounty of natural gas, Mitchell's breakthrough ignited an energy revolution. Between 2006 and 2008, domestic gas reserves jumped 35 percent. The United States later vaulted past Russia to become the world's largest natural gas producer. As a result, prices dropped to record lows, and America began to wean itself from coal, along with oil and gas imports, which lessened its dependence on the Middle East. The surging global gas supply also helped shrink Russia's economic clout: Profits for Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, plummeted by more than 60 percent between 2008 and 2009 alone.

Clinton, who was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, believed that shale gas could help rewrite global energy politics. "This is a moment of profound change," she later told a crowd at Georgetown University. "Countries that used to depend on others for their energy are now producers. How will this shape world events? Who will benefit, and who will not?…The answers to these questions are being written right now, and we intend to play a major role." Clinton tapped a lawyer named David Goldwyn as her special envoy for international energy affairs; his charge was "to elevate energy diplomacy as a key function of US foreign policy."

"Countries that used to depend on others for their energy are now producers," said Clinton. "How will this shape world events? Who will benefit?…The answers to these questions are being written right now, and we intend to play a major role."


Goldwyn had a long history of promoting drilling overseas—both as a Department of Energy official under Bill Clinton and as a representative of the oil industry. From 2005 to 2009 he directed the US-Libya Business Association, an organization funded primarily by US oil companies—including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and Marathon—clamoring to tap Libya's abundant supply. Goldwyn lobbied Congress for pro-Libyan policies and even battled legislation that would have allowed families of the Lockerbie bombing victims to sue the Libyan government for its alleged role in the attack.

According to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, one of Goldwyn's first acts at the State Department was gathering oil and gas industry executives "to discuss the potential international impact of shale gas." Clinton then sent a cable to US diplomats, asking them to collect information on the potential for fracking in their host countries. These efforts eventually gave rise to the Global Shale Gas Initiative, which aimed to help other nations develop their shale potential. Clinton promised it would do so "in a way that is as environmentally respectful as possible."

But environmental groups were barely consulted, while industry played a crucial role. When Goldwyn unveiled the initiative in April 2010, it was at a meeting of the United States Energy Association, a trade organization representing Chevron, Exxon Mobil, and ConocoPhillips, all of which were pursuing fracking overseas. Among their top targets was Poland, which preliminary studies suggested had abundant shale gas. The day after Goldwyn's announcement, the US Embassy in Warsaw helped organize a shale gas conference, underwritten by these same companies (plus the oil field services company Halliburton) and attended by officials from the departments of State and Energy.

In some cases, Clinton personally promoted shale gas. During a 2010 gathering of foreign ministers in Washington, DC, she spoke about America's plans to help spread fracking abroad. "I know that in some places [it] is controversial," she said, "but natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel available for power generation today." She later traveled to Poland for a series of meetings with officials, after which she announced that the country had joined the Global Shale Gas Initiative.

"We are very firm on this," insists the State Department's Paul Hueper. "We do not shill for industry."


That August, delegates from 17 countries descended on Washington for the State Depart­ment's first shale gas conference. The media was barred from attending, and officials refused to reveal basic information, including which countries took part. When Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) inquired about industry involvement, the department would say only that there had been "a limited industry presence." (State Department officials have since been more forthcoming with Mother Jones: In addition to a number of US government agencies, they say attendees heard from energy firms, including Devon, Chesapeake, and Halliburton.)

During the cursory press conference that followed, Goldwyn, a short, bespectacled man with a shock of dark hair, argued that other nations could avoid the environmental damage sometimes associated with fracking by following America's lead and adopting "an umbrella of laws and regulations." A reporter suggested that US production had actually "outpaced the ability to effectively oversee the safety" and asked how we could be sure the same wouldn't happen elsewhere. Goldwyn replied that attendees had heard about safety issues from energy companies and the Groundwater Protection Council, a nonprofit organization that receives industry funding and opposes federal regulation of fracking wastewater disposal.

Goldwyn and the delegates then boarded a bus to Pennsylvania for an industry-sponsored luncheon and tour of some shale fields. Paul Hueper, director of energy programs at the State Department's Bureau of Energy Resources, says the tour was organized independently and that energy firms were only invited to the conference itself to share best practices. "We are very firm on this," he insisted. "We do not shill for industry."

WHILE THE MEETING helped stir up interest, it wasn't until 2011 that global fracking fever set in for real. That spring, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its initial estimate of global shale gas, which found that 32 countries had viable shale basins and put global recoverable shale gas at 6,600 trillion cubic feet—enough to supply the world for more than 50 years at current rates of consumption. This was a rich opportunity for big oil and gas companies, which had largely missed out on the US fracking boom and were under pressure from Wall Street to shore up their dwindling reserves. "They're desperate," says Antoine Simon, who coordinates the shale gas campaign at Friends of the Earth Europe. "It's the last push to continue their fossil fuel development."

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Gas Lands: top 10 Countries with recoverable shale gas resources (in trillion cubic feet}

The industry began fighting hard for access to shale fields abroad, and promoting gas as the fuel of choice for slashing carbon emissions. In Europe, lobbyists circulated a report claiming that the European Union could save 900 billion euros if it invested in gas rather than renewable energy to meet its 2050 climate targets. This rankled environmentalists, who argue fracking may do little to ease global warming, given that wells and pipelines leak large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They also fear it could crowd out investment in renewables.

By early 2011, the State Department was laying plans to launch a new bureau to integrate energy into every aspect of foreign policy—an idea Goldwyn had long been advocating. In 2005, he and a Chevron executive named Jan Kalicki had published a book called Energy and Security: Toward a New Foreign Policy Strategy, which argued that energy independence was unattainable in the near term and urged Washington to shift its focus to energy security—by boosting global fossil fuel production and stifling unrest that might upset energy markets. Goldwyn and his ideas had played a key role in shaping the bureau, so some observers were surprised when he quietly stepped down just before its launch.

When I approached Goldwyn following a recent speaking engagement in Washington, DC, to ask about his time at the State Department and why he left, he ducked out a side door, and Kalicki blocked the corridor to keep me from following. Goldwyn later said via email that he had simply chosen "to return to the private sector."

Around the time of his departure, WikiLeaks released a slew of diplomatic cables, including one describing a 2009 meeting during which Goldwyn and Canadian officials discussed development of the Alberta oil sands—a project benefiting some of the same firms behind the US-Libya Business Association. The cable said that Goldwyn had coached his Canadian counterparts on improving "oil sands messaging" and helped alleviate their concerns about getting oil sands crude to US markets. This embarrassed the State Department, which is reviewing the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal to transport crude oil from Canada and is under fire from environmentalists.

After leaving State, Goldwyn took a job with Sutherland, a law and lobbying firm that touts his "deep understanding" of pipeline issues, and launched his own company, Goldwyn Global Strategies.

In late 2011, Clinton finally unveiled the new Bureau of Energy Resources, with 63 employees and a multimillion-dollar budget. She also promised to instruct US embassies around the globe to step up their work on energy issues and "pursue more outreach to private-sector energy" firms, some of which had generously supported both her and President Barack Obama's political campaigns. (One Chevron executive bundled large sums for Clinton's 2008 presidential bid, for example.)

As part of its expanded energy mandate, the State Department hosted conferences on fracking from Thailand to Botswana. It sent US experts to work alongside foreign officials as they developed shale gas programs. And it arranged for dozens of foreign delegations to visit the United States to attend workshops and meet with industry consultants—as well as with environmental groups, in some cases.

US oil giants, meanwhile, were snapping up natural gas leases in far-flung places. By 2012, Chevron had large shale concessions in Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, and South Africa, as well as in Eastern Europe, which was in the midst of a claim-staking spree; Poland alone had granted more than 100 shale concessions covering nearly a third of its territory. When the nation lit its first shale gas flare atop a Halliburton-drilled well that fall, the state-owned gas company ran full-page ads in the country's largest newspapers showing a spindly rig rising above the hills in the tiny village of Lubocino, alongside the tagline: "Don't put out the flame of hope." Politicians promised that Poland would soon break free of its nemesis, Russia, which supplies the lion's share of its gas. " After years of dependence on our large neighbor, today we can say that my generation will see the day when we will be independent in the area of natural gas," Prime Minister Donald Tusk declared. "And we will be setting terms."

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Number of Drilling Concessions/License Permits
Sources: Friends of the Earth Europe, media reports


But shale was not the godsend that industry leaders and foreign governments had hoped it would be. For one, new research from the US Geological Survey suggested that the EIA assessments had grossly overestimated shale deposits: The recoverable shale gas estimate for Poland shrank from 187 trillion cubic feet to 1.3 trillion cubic feet, a 99 percent drop. Geological conditions and other factors in Europe and Asia also made fracking more arduous and expensive; one industry study estimated that drilling shale gas in Poland would cost three times what it does in the United States.

By 2013, US oil giants were abandoning their Polish shale plays. "The expectations for global shale gas were extremely high," says the State Department's Hueper. "But the geological limitations and aboveground challenges are immense. A handful of countries have the potential for a boom, but there may never be a global shale gas revolution."

"They're desperate," says Antoine Simon of Friends of the Earth Europe. "It's the last push to continue their fossil fuel development."


The politics of fracking overseas were also fraught. According to Susan Sakmar, a visiting law professor at the University of Houston who has studied fracking regulation, the United States is one of the only nations where individual landowners own the mineral rights. "In most, perhaps all, other countries of the world, the underground resources belong to the crown or the government," she explains. The fact that property owners didn't stand to profit from drilling on their land ignited public outrage in some parts of the world, especially Eastern Europe. US officials speculate that Russia also had a hand in fomenting protests there. "The perception among diplomats in the region was that Russia was protecting its interests," says Mark Gitenstein, the former US ambassador to Romania. "It didn't want shale gas for obvious reasons."

Faced with these obstacles, US and European energy companies launched a lobbying blitz targeting the European Union. They formed faux grassroots organizations, plied lawmakers with industry-funded studies, and hosted lavish dinners and conferences for regulators. The website for one industry confab—which, according to Friends of the Earth Europe, featured presentations from Exxon Mobil, Total, and Halliburton—warned that failure to develop shale gas "will have damaging consequences on European energy security and prosperity" and urged European governments to "allow shale gas exploration to advance" so they could "fully understand the scale of the opportunity."

US lobbying shops also jumped into the fray. Covington & Burling, a major Washington firm, hired several former senior EU policymakers—including a top energy official who, according to the New York Times, arrived with a not-yet-public draft of the European Commission's fracking regulations.

In June 2013, Covington staffer Jean De Ruyt, a former Belgian diplomat and adviser to the European Commission, hosted an event at the firm's Brussels office. Executives from Chevron and other oil and gas behemoths attended, as did Kurt Vandenberghe, then one of the commission's top environmental regulators. These strategies appeared to pay off: The commission's recently released framework for regulating fracking includes recommendations for governments but not firm requirements. "They chose the weakest option they had," says Simon of Friends of the Earth Europe. "People at the highest level of the commission are in the industry's pocket."

Goldwyn was also busy promoting fracking overseas—this time on behalf of industry. Between January and October 2012, his firm organized a series of workshops on fracking for officials in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Ukraine, all of them funded by Chevron. The events were closed to the public—when Romanian journalist Vlad Ursulean tried to attend the Romanian gathering, he says Goldwyn personally saw to it that he was escorted out.

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David Goldwyn at a 2006 NATO conference NATO photos

Goldwyn told Mother Jones that the workshops featured presentations on technical aspects of fracking by academics from the Colorado School of Mines and Penn State University. Chevron, he maintains, had "no editorial input." But all of these countries—except Bulgaria, which was in the midst of anti-fracking protests—would later grant Chevron major shale concessions.

In some cases, the State Department had a direct hand in negotiating the deals. Gitenstein, then the ambassador to Romania, met with Chevron executives and Romanian officials and pressed them to hand over millions of acres of shale concessions. "The Romanians were just sitting on the leases, and Chevron was upset. So I intervened," says Gitenstein, whose State Department tenure has been bookended by stints at Mayer Brown, a law and lobbying firm that has represented Chevron. "This is traditionally what ambassadors do on behalf of American companies." In the end, Romania signed a 30-year deal with Chevron, which helped set off massive, nationwide protests.

When the government began weighing a fracking ban, it didn't sit well with Gitenstein, who went on Romanian television and warned that, without fracking, the nation could be stuck paying five times what America does for natural gas. He added that US shale prospectors had "obtained great successes—without consequences for the environment, I dare say." The proposed moratorium soon died.


A FEW WEEKS LATER, Chevron was preparing to build its first fracking rig near Pungesti, a tiny farming village in northeastern Romania. According to a memo from the prime minister's office, a Romanian official met with Chevron executives and an embassy-based US Commerce Department employee to craft a PR strategy for the project. They agreed to organize a kickoff event at Victoria Palace in Bucharest. As a spokesman, they would tap Damian Draghici, a charismatic Romanian lawmaker who was a "recognized personality among the Roma minority," which had a "considerable presence" around Chevron's planned drilling sites. "It was really extraordinary—the level of collaboration between these players," says Ursulean, who has written extensively about Chevron's activities in Romania. "It was as if they were all branches of the same company."

"The Romanians were just sitting on the leases, and Chevron was upset," says former US ambassador to Romania Mark Gitenstein. "So I intervened."


The strategy did little to soothe the public's ire. When Chevron finally did attempt to install the rig in late 2013, residents—including elderly villagers who arrived in horse-drawn carts—blockaded the planned drilling sites. The Romanian Orthodox Church rallied behind them, with one local priest likening Chevron to enemy "invaders." Soon, anti-fracking protests were cropping up from Poland to the United Kingdom. But Chevron didn't back down. Along with other American energy firms, it lobbied to insert language in a proposed US-EU trade agreement allowing US companies to haul European governments before international arbitration panels for any actions threatening their investments. Chevron argued this was necessary to protect shareholders against "arbitrary" and "unfair" treatment by local authorities. But environmental groups say it would stymie fracking regulation and point to a $250 million lawsuit Delaware-based Lone Pine Resources has filed against the Canadian province of Quebec for temporarily banning fracking near a key source of drinking water. The case hinges on a similar trade provision.

Despite the public outcry in Europe, the State Department has stayed the course. Clinton's successor as secretary of state, John Kerry, views natural gas as a key part of his push against climate change. Under Kerry, State has ramped up investment in its shale gas initiative and is planning to expand it to 30 more countries, from Cambodia to Papua New Guinea.

Following the Crimea crisis, the Obama administration has also been pressing Eastern European countries to fast-track their fracking initiatives so as to be less dependent on Russia. During an April visit to Ukraine, which has granted concessions to Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, Vice President Joe Biden announced that the United States would bring in technical experts to speed up its shale gas development. "We stand ready to assist you," promised Biden, whose son Hunter has since joined the board of a Ukrainian energy company. "Imagine where you'd be today if you were able to tell Russia: 'Keep your gas.' It would be a very different world."

This story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
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